Slow year for music so far, huh? And by “slow” I mean “terrible”. Of the albums charting in the Top 10 on Billboard this year, five of them have been worth buying. That’s out of close to a hundred albums. Maybe two of them (Crowder’s Neon Steeple and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum) have been truly great. There have been at least twice as many as that in each of the past four years through about this time. But that doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to celebrate. You just have to dig a little deeper than the charting albums. Here are the five best albums of 2014 so far:
John Mark McMillan, Borderland: McMillan has always been more than the “How He Loves” guy, but this album is the fullest, most complete manifestation of his brilliant vision so far. His always poetic lyrics are matched by the most inventive worship music of the past few years. It all points to the torn feeling we have between this world and the next, knowing we belong in one and not the other.
Liz Vice, There’s a Light: If McMillan’s Borderland has staked out the thoughtful worship corner of 2014, Vice’s There’s a Light takes the pure joy corner. We’ve heard R&B artists give praise to the Lord before (all the way back to Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers), but it’s been decades since the praise has been this direct and full of life. Vice seems to understand that the finer points of soul music were originally about declaring the wonders of God, and to that end she gives herself over completely.
Miranda Lambert, Platinum: You can have your Kacey Musgraves and your Ashley Monroe. I’ll let you take your Carrie Underwood and your Taylor Swift. I won’t miss them. Give me a Miranda Lambert, someone who, after she’s already in, conquers country music and all its clichés with one album.
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There: Listening to Are We There is like listening to a world being created. Van Etten on this album reminds me of Laura Marling last year on I Was an Eagle, constructing her songs layer by layer until she had gradually built intricate architecture within her songs. Both albums are about broken relationships, but where Marling’s was a slow burn, Are We There is a slow explosion.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream: There’s no better-titled album this year, that’s for sure. Listening to Lost in the Dream’s distorted guitars is like being lost in the best kind of dream, but only if your dreams were totally honest with you about the direction your life is going. Songs like “Under the Pressure” and “In Reverse” couldn’t be more appropriate for someone in my stage of life, just out of college and finding his way in a new job.
5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”: Better than candy.
Ariana Grande, “Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)”: The kind of pop hit Mariah wanted to nail but never could. Yeah, I said it.
Duck Sauce, “NRG”: Better than coffee.
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”: A pure declaration in both the music and the words of God’s sovereignty.
tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain”: Better than water from water fountains.
Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of ) 2014
Ariana Grande, My Everything: Her last album was sublime, and “Problem” bodes well for this one.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers: My excitement for this album grew when the band re-released their lost 2010 album in January, and early single “Saturday’s Song” is incredible.
The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers: I haven’t been so hot on their past couple of albums, but if the title track is any indication, the NPs are back to their bruising pop ways.
Robert Plant, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar: This is here because he’s dating Patty Griffin, I think, and I’m hoping she shows up on this album.
Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams has been better as of late, and I hope he continues the trend.